The McDonnell (after 1967, McDonnell-Douglas) F-4 Phantom II was perhaps the most famous, certainly the most recognized, jet fighter in the world in the latter half of the 20th Century. It took its maiden flight on May 27, 1958, and from the outset, the F-4 was a thoroughbred. Early flight tests exceeded expectations as it reached Mach 1.01; acceleration and climb-rate figures also surpassed their goals. With its two General Electric J-79 turbojets, the F-4’s amazing performance set world records for altitude (98,537 ft. on December 6, 1958) and speed (1,606.03 mph, or Mach 2.6, on November 22, 1961). Between September 1960 and April 1962, the Phantom broke an additional 13 world records.
The Phantom II was the result of a years-long development project begun after McDonnell lost out on a contract for a Navy carrier fighter to Chance Vought in 1953. The sting of losing to what later became the F-8 Crusader drove McDonnell to begin a series of design studies tailored to meet future needs. It began with a survey of the U.S. Navy hierarchy — the Chief of Naval Operations, the Bureau of Aeronautics, an office called Head of the Fighter Branch, the Overhaul and Repair units, and any Navy personnel willing to listen and fill out a questionnaire. The result was the Navy’s December 17, 1958, announcement that the F4H-1, as the initial prototype was designated, had been selected as its first all-weather fighter. Poetic justice was dispensed in that the Phantom II beat out several contenders, including an advanced version of the Crusader, the F8U-3. The Phantom II was the first aircraft to make extensive use of titanium (in its keel, aft fuselage skin, engine shrouds, and part of the internal fuselage structure). It was also the first aircraft able to independently detect, intercept and destroy any target that came within radar range – other fighters of the day still needed help from surface radar units.
The Navy, in conjunction with McDonnell, embarked on a rigorous flight test program over the next three years. The first operational Phantoms, designated F-4B, entered service with the Navy and Marine Corps on March 25, 1961 – even before the completion of the test program that November. The Air Force could not overlook the outstanding new fighter and adopted the type in 1963. Over the next 25 years, a total of 17 different variants among 5,200 aircraft followed, including the gun-equipped F-4E and the Wild Weasel series. Phantoms flew for 11 nations: Australia, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Spain, West Germany, Great Britain, Turkey, and the United States.
During its service life the Phantom saw combat in the Vietnam War, various Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Gulf War. Its most extensive use was in Southeast Asia. It was so versatile that it quickly became a multi-role fighter, serving in Vietnam as air defense, air superiority, and escort fighters as well as fighter-bombers in battlefield and deep interdiction missions. It later performed flak suppression in the Wild Weasel role in the F-4G configuration. Phantoms first saw action on August 6, 1964, when five F4-Bs of VF-142 and VF-143 off the U.S.S. Constellation made a retaliatory strike on North Vietnamese patrol boat bases following the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The first air-to-air kills occurred on June 17, 1965, when F-4B’s of VF-21 shot down two North Vietnamese MiG-17’s with Sparrow missiles.
Dependence on Missiles
Like many jet fighters designed during the mid- to late-1950’s, the Phantom fell prey to the Pentagon doctrine that guns were obsolete and that air combat maneuver, or “dogfighting” was a dead art, made so by the advent of sophisticated new air-to-air missiles. Fighters didn’t need guns if they could make a kill at the long ranges at which missiles were effective. But over time, painful experience in Southeast Asia forced a change in this thinking.
Phantoms contended with MiG-17’s, MiG-19’s, and MiG-21’s in Vietnam, all single-seat, gun-equipped fighters carrying AA-2 Atoll missiles like the heat-seeking Sidewinder. All the MiG’s were slower than the Phantom except for later models of the MiG-21, but were highly maneuverable, and could out-turn the F-4. This gave the MiG’s an advantage in dogfights, offset by the Phantom’s ability to outrun and outclimb them. Missiles theoretically allowed F-4 pilots to destroy enemy planes from beyond visual range, but they had certain weaknesses. They had to fly a certain distance before they could arm themselves; electronic countermeasures, violent evasive action, and even weather conditions could hinder their performance; sometimes they failed for no apparent reason, either dropping into the jungle or tracking an enemy aircraft but failing to detonate. F-4 pilots sometimes found themselves in the uncomfortable situation of being too close to the MiG’s to use their missiles, or having fired them without effect, only to find themselves well within the MiG’s effective gun range.
Also, there were problems with the dependability of the IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) radar with which they were used, and with their reliability (more of an issue with the radar-guided Sparrow and its 10% success rate than the heat-seeking Sidewinder). Missiles were often fired in pairs to increase chances of a hit. Adopting hit-and-run tactics to emphasize the Phantom’s strengths, rather than “fighting the MiG’s fight,” Phantom pilots accounted for 42 MiG’s destroyed in Vietnam. Phantom pilots remained dependent on missiles until their planes were field-modified with external 20mm gun pods carried under the belly in place of the 600-gallon drop tank. The gun pods provided urgently needed firepower, but they increased drag, hampering the Phantom’s ability to maneuver, and were not accurate, tending to spray ammo all over the sky. A more permanent solution in the form of an internal gun was needed.
F-4E: The Overdue Gunfighter
McDonnell engineers had proposed various internal gun configurations for the Phantom as early as 1961, but all were rejected by the Department of Defense. With new information coming in from pilots in Southeast Asia in the form of after-action reports, McDonnell went to work again, and the prototype YF-4E took its maiden flight on August 7, 1965. The first production F-4E did not go aloft until June 30, 1967, in part due to teething problems the redesigned Phantom had with its 20mm gun. Initially the F-4E was developed not to facilitate close-in dogfighting with the addition of a gun, but rather to incorporate a new radar, the Westinghouse APQ-120, into the airframe. The APQ-120 radar offered improved detection of low flying aircraft and moving ground targets, the latter providing enhanced accuracy on bombing runs, and was generally more versatile, facilitating interceptions with either missiles or a gun as the primary offensive weapon. The APQ-120 also featured a new heads-up display (HUD), which projected tactical information (speed, altitude, range to target, etc.) directly onto the gunsight glass. With this breakthrough in air combat effectiveness and the addition of the General Electric M61A1 six-barrel 20mm cannon in a longer nose, the F-4E as we know it was born. The F-4E also differed from its predecessors in having dual flight controls, so that either pilot could fly the aircraft if necessary.
The LAU-3 rocket pod, visible here beneath the TISEO unit, was a canister with hollow cones on either end, containing nineteen 2.75 in. rockets. The end cones were jettisoned just prior to rocket attacks against ground targets.
It was not until the fall of 1967 that the F-4E was first delivered to Air Force Tactical Air Command units, and it took another year for it to appear in Southeast Asia, entering service with U.S. Air Force units in Thailand in November 1968. The first F-4E unit to see combat in the Vietnam War was the 40th Tactical Fighter Squadron based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base; its first mission was interdiction, bombing targets in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the renowned supply route of the Viet Cong. The F-4E accounted for 23 MiG’s destroyed by war’s end, seven of them falling to the 20mm gun.
Ultimately the biggest hindrance to Phantom drivers in Vietnam may have been the political constraints of the war, complicating their lives in the form of “Rules of Engagement.” Air-to-air kills were OK, for example, but enemy planes could not be hit if parked on the ground. One Phantom pilot, Air Force Captain Bill Jenkins, commented, “The Rules of Engagement were such that I sometimes felt I needed a lawyer in the back seat instead of a WSO!”.
The last Phantom manufactured was an F-4E that rolled off the McDonnell-Douglas assembly line in October 1979. The F-4 was retired from front-line U.S. military units between 1992-1995 but continued in service with Air National Guard units until the last one decommissioned its last F-4E unit in 1997. Various service branches thereafter used modified F-4’s as target drones until about 2004. As of late 2009, Phantoms remained in service with foreign nations including Germany, Greece, Iran, Japan, and South Korea.
Wingspan: 38 ft., 4 7/8 in.
Height: 16 ft., 5 ½ in.
Length: 62 ft., 11 ¾ in.
Powerplant: 2 General Electric J-79 Turbojets of 17,900 lbs. thrust, with afterburners
Service Ceiling: 70,000 feet
Rate of Climb: 28,000 ft. per minute
Range: 900 miles with combat load; 2,300 miles with external fuel tanks
Maximum Speed: Mach 2.4 (1,584 mph at 48,000 feet)
Armament: 20mm Vulcan cannon, variety of underwing stores
The traditional weapons load for a Phantom in its interceptor role, AIM-7 Sparrow missiles and AIM-9 Sidewinders. The F-4E could also be configured with two LAU-3 rocket pods. Each LAU-3 carried 19 2.75-inch folding fin aerial rockets (FFAR) for use against ground targets. There was also an option for a Northrop ASX-1 TISEO unit on the port wing. The TISEO (Target Identification System, Electro-Optical) was a telescopic television camera that aided in target acquisition and identification up to 12 miles. The TISEO could be linked to the APQ-120 radar.
The fuselage of the Phantom was area-ruled, meaning that it was slightly pinched just aft of the intakes. This wasp-waist, commonly referred to as Coke Bottle, effect retarded shock wave build-up along the fuselage, particularly as the F-4 approached the speed of sound.
The Southeast Asian camouflage scheme was Dark Tan, Dark Green and Green, and the fact that the white undersides of the U.S. Air Force F-4E’s is identified as Federal Standard 36622, a supposed light grey color Former F-4 pilots and ground crew tend to identify the underside color simply as white. The camouflage scheme is relatively elaborate. The engine exhausts are made of titanium.
Korat AFB in Thailand was the first base to deploy the F-4E in Southeast Asia.
The F-4E was one of the most numerous variants ever produced, being highly prized due to its 20mm gun and the resulting enhanced air combat capability. It was never deployed by the U.S. Navy only due to the longer nose and extra weight of the gun and its ammunition, which made catapult launching from aircraft carriers a dicey proposition.